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Mar 12

Execution Problem?

Matt Blumberg, CEO of Return Path, writes:

My biggest takeaway from the TED Conference this week is that we — that is to say, all of us in the world — have an execution problem

we know a lot about the world’s problems, and we don’t lack for vision and data on how to solve them.  A few of the things we heard about this week are the knowledge — and in many cases, even real experiences — about how to:

– Steer the evolution of deadly disease-causing bacteria to make them more benign within a decade

– Build world class urban transportation systems and growth plans to improve urban living and control pollution

– Drive down the cost of critical pharmaceuticals to developing nations by 95%

– Dramatically curb CO2 emissions

We have the knowledge, and yet the problems remain unsolved.  Why is that?

Why is that?  Because there are opportunity costs involved in every plan of action.   (Opportunity costs are the costs of the things that you don’t get to choose when you make a decision.  For example, if you choose to take a taxi from the airport to your hotel, you can’t also choose to take the bus.  And you pay more because of that)
In a given organization, there is a centralized hierarchy for decision making that makes these “choose the taxi or the bus” decisions straightforward.

In the wide world, there are no such hierarchies, and, I would argue, it is a very, very good thing that there aren’t.  Because while hierarchies are effective at making decisions, they are not effective at representing the views of the population.

I can’t speak to Matt’s first example, because I’m not familiar with steering the evolution of bacteria. But on his other three examples:

  • Build World Class Urban Transportation
  • Drive down the cost of pharmaceuticals
  • Reduce CO2 Emissions

All three of those represent significant tradeoffs – in order to build world-class urban transportation, tax money will not be spent on something else.   Driving down the cost of pharmaceuticals – which already happens when the patents expire – could have harmful effects on drug research.  And reducing CO2 emissions would also represent a significant re-allocation of money and time.

Deciding that “We want to build a world-class transportation system” will require that people give up on other things… things that they want (or think they want) more than a world-class transportation system.  Because we live in representational democracies, it is not appropriate to force these people to give up what they want.  Instead, we have to persuade, and persuasion takes time, and involves compromise (give me some of X, and I’ll give you some of Y)

And world-class execution does not work when you have to make significant compromises.    And, I will add, given the choice between (sloppy execution and representational democracy) vs (world-class execution and benevolent dictatorship) I’ll take sloppy execution, every time.

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